Universal Integrators

This was published in the July 2009 Journal of the All India Management Association.                                                                                       

It is adapted from lectures at the Indian Institute of Management, the Film & Television Institute of India and the National Institute of Design.       

Universal Integrators

By Anand Kurian


You are raised in a small town, enjoying its charm and intimacy; you move to the city for graduation and later spend two years learning Business Management within a secluded campus. You land your first job in the same country. Then, bingo, God and the Boss smile at you; you perform well and He (the boss, that is, not God) tells you, “You are off to oversee things in Borneo, kiddo! You will be in sole charge, so best of luck!”

Borneo! Of course, you are thrilled with the thought of the career jump – you are going to be head honcho now but Borneo? You know nothing of it save excerpts from a tattered school textbook... something about oil and a wealthy potentate. And now you have to look after it!

In a world that is increasingly inter-linked, my Universal Integrators model is a marketing management enabler that helps overcome barriers as products, services (and concepts) cross boundaries.

The entire world is a universe, of course. And there is the rare case where you have to beam a single message to people all over the globe (this is pretty rare, unless you are an Obama).

Here, Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs comes in handy. Maslow saw human needs arranged like rungs on a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical air, water, food, sex. Then came safety needssecurity, stability followed by psychological or social needs for belonging, love and acceptance. And at the top of it all were the self-actualizing needs the need to fulfil oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming.

Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs

This seems about right, up to a point. For an amorphous, world-wide audience, Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs could steer you through the concept of the message and the construction of its communication.

But what do you do when your work requires you to reach out to sub-universes? India is a sub-universe and, moving closer, Kerala and Rajasthan are sub-universes too. The Jain community within Mumbai is a further sub universe. So, what do you do when this sub-universe is your audience and, as is the case when you are shipped to Borneo, you know almost nothing about it?

The first step is to stop thinking of it as a sub-universe. Borneo or Kerala or Mumbai’s Jain community is now your universe. You must unload the cultural baggage that you’ve accumulated – all that you’ve learnt, studied and experienced.

Borrow two strategies from the anthropologist. Adopt his objective, non-judgemental approach (when studying cannibals, the anthropologist will put aside his moral repugnance; that would hinder his study). Learn participant observation, the anthropologist studies tribes by becoming one of them just as you should learn to do.

 Now you start exploring, tentatively at first, to find out the Universal Integrators of the particular universe that you are interested in what it is that binds and integrates every member of that group together?

What are the Universal Integrators of India? Is it religion? No, we are said to have nineteen religions. Language? We have twenty-two languages and eight hundred and forty four dialects. And then, as you explore, of course, there it is, staring you in the face – Bollywood and cricket the two Universal Integrators that bind all of India.

This is how a giant multinational, like Pepsi, enters India. Observe how skilfully they have put the Universal Integrators to work for their brand. Nearly every piece of communication for the product employs Bollywood, cricket or both.

Now, that seems rather simple and obvious, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t quite as self-evident years ago when they first came in. Their study of the Indian market was unbiased and neutral and they set out to become full-bodied participants in the Indian spectacle. They discovered the Universal Integrators of their target audience and put it to work for their brand.

Of course, it seems far easier to address your audience when you are in your own homeland... or is it?

Let’s rewind just a bit; a slight change this time, however. Your boss says, “We’ve been having problems in Trivandrum you are being shipped off to look after things there, so best of luck!”

And, the very next day you find yourself on the first flight to Kerala! You are still in your own country but you were born in Ludhiana, raised as a hard core Punjab di puttar, read Economics at St. Stephens, Delhi, and then Management at Ahmedabad... you know nothing of Kerala.

So, even in your own country, you will need the Universal Integrators model whether the target groups are Trivandrumites in Kerala or the Bishnois in Rajasthan.


Universes have their sub-universes; each universe and sub-universe has its own set of Universal Integrators. 

 A. In the world as universe, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would apply.

B. In the country as sub-universe, the Universal Integrators in India, for instance, could be said to be Bollywood and cricket.

C. In Mumbai city, in terms of what drives most people here - money, professionalism, achievement... In terms of shared experiences - local trains, street food, Juhu beach. 

D. Among the Jains in Mumbai, it could be vegetarianism.

E. In professional circles, there are numerous, unwritten integrators – dress codes, for instance – an adfilm-maker would seldom be seen in a tie.

F. There would be, of course, other sub-universes – the cosmopolitan culture of the suburb of Bandra is a strong integrator there.  


 Of course, sub-universes can be more complex chiefly because they overlap and intersect.


When sub-universes intersect,we need to search for the identity that is dominant.

Thus, a Keralite could be living in Mumbai, be part of the advertising profession and a resident of the upscale suburb of Bandra; a Jain could be an avowed atheist and a socialist. Professional tribes will intersect with religious tribes; that could further intersect with residence and so on.

So, we need to refine and redefine our target group further – you need to look for the identity that is dominant. With which tribe does the person most identify? If he sees himself pre-dominantly as an ad man, that’s essentially who he isso tailor your messages accordingly. If X essentially sees himself as a socialist revolutionary, then target that aspect.

Members may intersect but generally cultures, mores and lifestyles (and buying decisions, in particular) will be determined by one group or the other, seldom both.

Central to every tribe is its set of Universal Integrators. Each tribe will have its ownamong the Jains, it could be vegetarianism, among residents of Bandra, the cosmopolitan culture. Some integrators may seem small and trivial, but they are not – nearly every Mumbaikar identifies with the roadside bhel puri and wada pao (food is a significant Universal Integrator nearly everywhere). 

The Universal Integrators concept applies wherever we need to market and communicate with groups; the audience can be as vast as a nation – or as small as your recalcitrant family.

We have witnessed two of the largest spectacles in the world – the Indian parliamentary elections and the American presidential election. As John F. Kennedy first showed, and Barack Obama amply demonstrated, elections are gigantic marketing exercises. The political machinery could use the Universal Integrators model to advantage; in a three-tier campaign, they could use it to bind electorates first in every constituency, then in every state and, finally, in the country...

Anand Kurian is a writer and marketing communications professional. Along with two former deans of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he has developed a new subject 'The Culture of Business' for management students.